Bear’s Garlic (or Ramps) Pesto

Over the past few years, there’s been a growing interest in intéressants roots and greens in Paris. It’s not that they don’t, or didn’t, exist in France. It’s just that many either fell out of favor or were oubliés (forgotten). And now, many are returning.

At the market, we now get kale, kale sprouts, rainbow chard, and every so often ail des ours (bear’s garlic) will show up at one of the stands. L’ail des ours is a cousin of ramps, which are popular in the United States, and cause a bit of a ruckus when it’s available. In Paris, bear’s garlic doesn’t hold quite the same sway and you don’t see people grabbing it by the handfuls. Except for me.

There used to be a woman at my market that had all sorts of curiosities, including fresh oregano, which isn’t widely available in Paris, as well as especially interesting varieties of fresh potatoes, which are popular, as well as spring garlic, chervil and parsley roots, and baby leeks. Unfortunately, she disappeared a couple of years ago and I hadn’t seen ail des ours anywhere since.

So I was thrilled when I was rifling through the flats of greens at a market stand manned by fellows who’ve been bringing more and more interesting greens to my market. I like them because they let you mix-and-match the greens, everything from baby beet greens to wild arugula. (And yes, you can help yourself.) The other day I noticed long, slender, green leaves piled up in one of the boxes and checked the label (and the smell). Sure enough, it was a big box of bear’s garlic. I grabbed handfuls, filling up a big bag with the leaves and took them home.

You may not be able to get bear’s garlic where you live, and if you go foraging for them, make sure you don’t mistake them for lily of the valley leaves (which are toxic), but ramps, or green garlic, would do in this pesto. You may need to taste and add a little more of this, or a little more of that, depending on what you use. The good thing about pesto is that it’s easy to make adjustments as you go. Just pound, stir, or blend, until it’s to your liking.

Although it’s traditional to use Parmesan in pesto, in the south of France, some cooks put a bit of softer cheese in their pistou, like Emmental, for creaminess. (Changing the name gives them license to do so.) Unlike basil pesto, this pesto needs no additional garlic added. The garlic flavor is already quite strong, so I find a creamier cheese mixed in with Parmesan works well to soften the blow.

It’s especially good mixed with pasta, on its own, or with steamed spring vegetables tossed in, like fresh peas or fava beans, asparagus, or well-wilted greens, topped with feta. I found it was especially good smeared on little crostini as an appetizer, atop slices of slightly aged goat cheese.

Bear's Garlic (or Ramps) Pesto
Print Recipe
Makes 1 1/2 cups (375ml) This recipe makes enough to coat four portions of pasta (starting with 1 pound/450g) of dried pasta. But it's so versatile, and delicious, that you'll find it's great swirled into soup (such as Soupe au pistou or Potato-Leek soup), spread on toasted bread with fresh or aged goat cheese, or if you're the kind of person who enjoys a good grilled cheese sandwich at home, it'd be incredible smeared between the bread, along with the cheese, then grilled. I also had this with pasta tossed with freshly steamed asparagus, cut into bite-sized pieces, and fava beans the other night, which was heaven. Although it's perfect tossed with pasta, just on its own. As mentioned, if you use something other than bear's garlic (such as ramps, wild garlic, or green garlic) you may need to adjust quantities. Feel free to swap out almonds or pumpkin seeds for the pistachios. (I don't toast pistachios since they lose their vibrant green color.)
7 ounces (200g) bear's garlic, trimmed of tough stems (about 4 cups roughly chopped)
1/3 - 1/2 cup (35-60g) shelled pistachios
1 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt or sea salt
1/2 cup (125ml) extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup (25g) grated Parmesan
1/4 cup (20g) soft grating cheese, such as Emmental or Gouda
1. In a mortar and pestle, start mashing the chopped bear's garlic in batches, along with the pistachios and salt. (Using the larger quantity of pistachios will make it thicker.) Continue adding the bear's garlic, until it's all incorporated. Dribble some of the olive oil in along the way, to create an emulsion.
(You can also make this in a blender or food processor, pureeing all the ingredients together, until relatively smooth.)
2. Add remaining olive oil to the bear's garlic mixture (if using a mortar and pestle), then pound in the two types of cheese. Taste, and add additional salt, if necessary.
If the pesto is very thick, it can be thinned with additional olive oil or a bit of tepid water. I often leave it thick, and if tossing it with warm, just-cooked pasta, will add additional olive oil to the pesto-slicked pasta at the last minute, to get it to the desired consistency.

Storage: The pesto will keep for 3-4 days in the refrigerator. Unlike basil pesto, this will not discolor quickly. The pesto can be frozen for up to two months.

Related Recipes

Basil vinaigrette

Basil pesto

Dandelion pesto

Soupe au pistou

Mint pesto

 


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41 comments

  • April 3, 2017 9:49am

    Love wild garlic pesto! I make mine with pine nuts or almonds – pistachios cost an arm and a leg here in Estonia :)
    The bear’s garlic/wild garlic season is just about to start here and it has been hugely popular among the foodies here for a few years now. Interesting to know that they’re not so big in France yet. Luckily I have some growing in my garden, and have a very good (read: huge!) wild garlic patch about a 5-minute drive away.. Reply

    • April 3, 2017 10:05am
      David Lebovitz

      You’re so fortunate to have all that in your garden! I suspect it’s easier to find in smaller places in France, but it rarely shows up at markets near me in Paris. I was so excited to find a whole box of it… Reply

    • April 3, 2017 10:25am

      Oh sorry, missed that. And yeah, people should be careful – as lily of the valley is my favorite flower and I’ve been picking them since I was a child I find it strange anyone could make that mistake. But not everyone is lucky enough to have a grandmother whose house is surrounded by them. :) Reply

  • April 3, 2017 10:05am

    How interesting, David – I never copped to the fact that pistou is made with bear’s garlic! Also, what is the difference between ramps and ail des ours? Over here in England we have what looks exactly like ail des ours and people call it either wild garlic or ramson. I always assumed the similarity to “ramps” meant it was the same thing. Also, I see that warning about lily of the valley a lot and find it funny because they do not grow at all in the same places and area to my mind very different: ramsons have very limp thin leaves and lily of the valley are quite stiff. Also, I’ve never seen lily of the valley outside a planted flower garden and never seen ramsons *in* one. But I guess better safe than sorry! Reply

    • April 3, 2017 10:21am
      David Lebovitz

      Pistou is traditionally made with basil, but sometimes has another type of cheese, or even tomato in it, and often no nuts. In the second paragraph of the post, I linked to two descriptions of ramps and bear’s garlic. Both are related, in the allium family.

      (I met a French couple who live in the North of France that ate the wrong leaves and fell ill. I didn’t ask how or where they found the leaves. But when people forage for anything, they should make sure whatever they find it suitable for consumption before eating them.) Reply

      • April 3, 2017 10:31am

        Aha! Checking your links, it looks like I’ve been picking bear’s garlic here in England. Now I know! We frequently find it on walks around here and I had the good fortune to be let in by a friend on the secret that there is a huge patch of it by the side of the public allotments in our village. If you are ever out walking around this time of year, it seems usually to be found on the banks of streams, frequently in copses of trees. Reply

    • bj
      April 25, 2017 4:25pm

      actually, if one does go foraging in German forests, they do grow in the same areas. However, the bear’s garlic (Baerlauch) grows and flowers first, the lily of the valley (Maigloeckchen) will flower after the Baerlauch.
      The unexperienced might confuse the leaves easily, especially if the Maigloeckchen just come up.
      My mom told me that her grandmothers used to go out in the forest and gather lily of the valleys to sell in bunches at the market to the city dwellers. That must have been during the great depression or maybe even earlier. People were a lot poorer back then……
      She never mentioned that they gathered Baerlauch for sale, although
      we have been gathering it for a long time.
      So, if you happen to hike in the “Thueringer Wald” or the “Hainich” or the “Harz”
      you will find green fields of Baerlauch. It looks beautiful.
      Only:
      This year the season is over.
      My great-grandparents stopped gathering it once the plant started to bloom. We went April 21st, 2017 and saw the first flower buds about to open)
      Have fun. Go out and hike. Reply

  • April 3, 2017 11:22am

    Great minds! My blog post today is a recipe for Ramsons Cream. The post includes a picture of the plant growing wild in the Touraine. ‘Bears garlic’ is called Ramsons in British English. Some of my French friends go foraging for it and look forward to it as a seasonal treat. Reply

  • April 3, 2017 11:53am

    We also have a market vendor with lots of unusual items, but I haven’t seen bear’s garlic.
    In my favorite Moroccan grocery, pine nuts are kept behind the cash register now because they are so expensive. However, I rarely find pistachios that are shelled, and I know that if I have to shell them I will eat every other one on the spot. Reply

  • April 3, 2017 12:27pm

    Such a delicious sounding recipe! I’m so intrigued about trying Bear’s garlic now. Reply

  • April 3, 2017 12:52pm

    Hi David,
    We made some Bear’s Garlic ice cream last week.
    Come and grab a pint to try ;-)

    Henri Reply

    • April 3, 2017 9:56pm
      David Lebovitz

      How was it? I mentioned it in my April newsletter, but I walked by the shop Sunday afternoon and the lines were quite long! : ) Reply

  • Peter
    April 3, 2017 3:10pm

    We’ll be seeing ramps in the next few weeks. Ramp risotto is a spring luxury. I sauté the bulb and white portion of the stem instead of shallot, and add the julienned leaves at the end. Anson Mills Gold rice grits (http://bit.ly/2ot5GHm) makes a wonderful, creamy risotto. Reply

  • Sharon Wichmann
    April 3, 2017 5:27pm

    I foraged a huge bag yesterday in a local park and will try you recipe now. I freeze it, too, for later. And we use it in soup, salad, on black bread with fresh cheese, in gnocchi. Reply

    • Peter
      April 4, 2017 2:31pm

      where? Reply

  • April 3, 2017 5:28pm

    I buy some bear garlic pickled at Maison de Savoie, 69 rue d’Argout 75002 and use it the same way I would with capers, gherkins. Go well with cheese for apéro… Reply

  • Lisa
    April 3, 2017 5:38pm

    This looks amazing but I haven’t seen ramps or bear’s garlic at any of our northern Alberta markets – are ramps the same as garlic scapes or could they be substituted? Reply

    • Peter
      April 4, 2017 2:31pm

      Although both are wild alliums, they’re different. Ramps have a broad leaf, whereas scapes are shaped more like scallions. They have distinct flavor profiles. Reply

  • John
    April 3, 2017 6:06pm

    I went on a wild food foraging course last spring, and was warned that young leaves of Arum maculatum (loads of common names, such as “Lords and Ladies”, “Cuckoo-pint” also look like Wild Garlic. But the smell is all. At the end of the course, they knocked up a Pesto, with pine nuts and parmesan. There was also a remarkable soup with Wild Garlic and Cow Parsnip – Heracleum sphodylium (aka Hogweed [not Giant Hogweed!])

    If you want a much hotter garlic hit, try eating the flowers!

    But I live on chalk so I only know one place “locally” where I can forage for it. Reply

  • David
    April 3, 2017 6:12pm

    In Cornwall (England) they use these leaves as a rind for a local cheese. “Wild Garlic Yarg”, although the normal version of the cheese uses stinging nettles Reply

  • Jeanne
    April 3, 2017 6:47pm

    David, thank you for this wonderful post! Could you please clarify what you mean by “trimmed of tough stems”? Ramps are plentiful where I live, and I usually use the whole ramp, leaf to bulb (if the bulb got dug up). In your photo, it looks as though perhaps you omitted the tougher tops of the leaves? Thank you! Reply

    • April 3, 2017 9:54pm
      David Lebovitz

      If you look at the second picture in the post, you’ll see at the base of the leaves, the stems are a bit thick. Some thicker than others. If they are quite thick, and tough, it’s best to trim them off before pureeing. (I use a mortar and pestle but perhaps in a blender, they’ll grind easier.) Reply

      • Stan B
        April 3, 2017 10:10pm

        Here, it is the base of the “wild leeks” (Allium tricoccum) that are favored, precisely because the tops can get tough. I like all of the plant, but do trim part of the tops if tough. But trimming of the bottoms, that is sacrilegious! Reply

        • April 4, 2017 7:58am
          David Lebovitz

          Yes, thanks for chiming in. Ramps and wild leeks, you’d use the bottoms for sure. With bear’s garlic, I just trim the bottoms of the stems. Reply

  • Parisbreakfast
    April 3, 2017 7:16pm

    That pesto green is absolutely gorgeous. I wish I could mix it in watercolor… Reply

  • Bill McKinley
    April 3, 2017 7:18pm

    Hi David I see these – i think – on my walks in Isere but I was never sure what to do with them. Sadly by the time I get back to France the season will be over, but I will keep this in mind for next year.

    Thanks for your wonderful posts. I always look forward to them. Reply

  • April 3, 2017 7:23pm

    Oh, it looks so good. I’ve never seen it here in Italy. Sad. I’ll keep watching for it. Reply

  • April 3, 2017 8:03pm

    David, I live in Haute-Savoie and “ail des ours” season is now in full bloom! Each year we wait impatiently for the first leaves to appear in the many spots we know it grows, usually near a stream. It is plentiful around here and we often pick it until May. Smaller and more tender leaves are more fragrant but as the season progresses, you can also pick the flower buds and pickle them to use like capers and then the flowers themselves which are wonderful lightly crispy on bear’s garlic soup. (The recipe for the soup is on my blog.) I also have a beautiful recipe for a pork tenderloin and bear’s garlic in a pastry crust. LOVE LOVE bear’s garlic season!! Nice to see you can get it in Paris. And thanks for your posts! I am French but lived in San Francisco for many years (in the 1980’s and 90’s) and married an American so my cooking repertoire is heavily US! You have been a lifesaver for guiding me in finding baking substitutes here in France! And your PERFECT SCOOP cookbook is my bible! Reply

  • April 3, 2017 8:53pm

    I have been searching for ramps for years but have not yet found any here. ☹️ Reply

  • jill
    April 3, 2017 9:03pm

    I haven’t yet tried ramps despite the craze because of an intense experience I had using garlic scapes in a pesto/pistou. It was inedibly strong to me. Ramps must be milder since they are so in demand? Reply

  • GRITSMama
    April 3, 2017 10:15pm

    Sounds absolutely delicious!
    Having lived most of my life in the mountains of North Carolina, I can’t imagine that by ramps, you mean what is growin wild all around our mountains, it being the Spring of the year.
    The old-timers would laughingly tell how in the old days, boys would love to eat the ramps and come to school on those cold damp spring days, when the windows would be closed and woodstove burning. Yes, it would shut a class down from the smell, especially if enough boys are the raw ramps. It got so that the schools made rules against ramp eating before school. The smell of them is very strong and lingers for days. But fried up with”fried taters” and “streaked meat” definitely mellows the flavor.
    So my question is, is this the same”ramp”? Which is actually a member of the leek family(we always thought of them as onion/garlic family)? Reply

  • Micaela
    April 4, 2017 1:09pm

    Hi David,

    I’m just wondering which market in Paris can we find this wonderful produce?

    I’ll be visiting soon and I’m excited to try this recipe.

    Thanks! Reply

    • April 4, 2017 10:07pm
      David Lebovitz

      The Popincourt market. The fellows in the middle near rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud. Reply

  • Melissa
    April 4, 2017 4:05pm

    I live in southern Germany. They are called Bärlauch (bear leeks) here and are available in most markets right now. I have had my eye out for new recipes, as I wasn’t happy with the pesto/pistou I made last year (don’t remember exactly what I did). Your recipe is perfectly timed for me. Thank you! Reply

  • Steven DH
    April 4, 2017 5:02pm

    Looks fantastic David. Marry me! Reply

  • Jessi
    April 4, 2017 5:59pm

    That looks so delicious in those pictures!!! Love green pesto. Have to make it this weekend. Reply

  • April 5, 2017 12:38pm

    I spent about an hour last night making wild garlic pesto! I have so much to put in jars to keep me going long after the wild garlic season is over.

    There is wild garlic in abundance here in the UK and I picked so much of it, I love the stuff.

    Will have to try this recipe next time, as I used pine nuts and parmesan in mine. This looks like a lovely alternative. Reply

  • Jamie
    April 5, 2017 9:35pm

    Do you have a recommendation for a mortar and pestle similar to yours? I’ve always wanted one but I have no idea what to look for. Reply

    • April 6, 2017 7:10am
      David Lebovitz

      Mine is vintage and not sure where to get one (unless you hunt at French flea markets!) but I also use one of these mortar and pestles, which are easy to get and reasonable. Best to get one of the larger sizes, if you don’t mind lugging it. Reply

  • Dd
    April 6, 2017 2:18pm

    I grow hard neck garlic in my garden and around the end of June I pick the scapes which are wonderful to cook with. Garlic scape pesto is strong, but I freeze it for storing. It’s more mellow when defrosted for using. I might be similar to your variety. Reply

  • Donna
    April 7, 2017 12:43am

    Where oh where can I get this in Lyon?!!! Any Lyon spottings of ‘Ail des Ours’?!!!! The vibrant green…swooning! Thanks for your generous (as always) share!! Reply

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